My Kind of Country

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Tag Archives: Lonnie Wilson

Album Review: Del McCoury — ‘Del McCoury Still Sings Bluegrass’

Like bourbon aging in oak barrels, the voice of Del McCoury seems to take on more depth and character with each album. Del McCoury stands as one of the last of bluegrass’s second generation in still keeping the music alive both as a recording artist and as an active touring performer. Whether performing before small audiences or large crowds, Del is a consistent force in performing the true-grass so adored by traditionalists, while leaving the door open for innovation.

Del McCoury Still Sings Bluegrass is comprised of 14 songs that range from murder ballads and train songs to songs about love last and found. The sources of the songs range from old country classics to tunes by modern bluegrass songsmiths. Whatever you like, you will find it here.

The opening track is “Hot Wired,” the opening song, is a cover of what I’ve heard described as a country-rock song. Written by Shawn Camp, the song is a car song that compares a woman to a car – the song features a bunch of hot solos by the various musicians. I guess you could call this newgrass.

“That Ol’ Train” sounds more folk-country than bluegrass, although it would work in either genre as it tells an effective story.

“Letters Have No Arms” was written by the Texas Troubadour Ernest Tubb and were a big hit for ET back in 1950. Del effective conveys the angst of the lyrics, a soldier reacting to his sweetheart’s letter.

“The First One Back in Town” is a song currently in hot rotation on bluegrass radio and is a classic murder ballad, in which his the narrator sees his sweetheart murdered from a distance and needs to get back to town before the killer, who might otherwise convince the authorities that he is the killer.

The next song “Build It Up” is a gospel tune written by Rob Clark. It is straightforward bluegrass gospel that Del’s band provides very effective harmonies.

“Bottom Dollar”, written by Fred John Elgersina feels like a folk ballad, a tale of woe and despair. Jason Carter plays some mighty lonesome fiddle on this piece.

Glen Duncan penned “Deep Dark Hollow Road” a song in which the singer calls on Loretta, his love, to abandon Kentucky in search of a better life.

I really liked the up-tempo “Ace of Hearts”, easily the most upbeat song in the set, about a fellow who got lucky in love and realizes just how lucky he was. The song was an album track on Alan Jackson’s debut album in 1990. The song was written by Lonnie Wilson, Ron Moore, and Carson Chamberlain and deserves to be better known

Love’s a gamble every heart will take

You roll the dice in hopes that it won’t break

One night I bet on your blue eyes and took a chance

And I won a whole lot more than one night of romance

 

I held the ace of hearts that night in the dark

How lucky can one man be

I hold the winning hand anyway life deals the cards

No way to lose ‘cause I’ve got you, my ace of hearts

Jerry Lee Lewis had a number one country single in early 1969 with the Jerry Kennedy – Glenn Sutton collaboration “To Make Love Sweeter For You”. Most of Jerry Lee’s country hits generated few covers because of how personal Jerry Lee made the songs seem. I thought that this was one of those songs that Jerry Lee had rendered incapable of being covered, but Del McCoury is fearless and was able to fashion a unique arrangement (reminiscent of 1890s honky-tonk) that carries the idiosyncratic feel of Jerry Lee’s recording, while still sounding dramatically different.

Well, I’d like to send an orchid at the start of every day

For flowers show more beauty than words could ever say

You’ve done so much for my world till all I want to do

Is try my best in every way to make love sweeter for you

 

A thousand special compliments I’d pay to you each day

Your ears would never tire of all the sweet things I would say

You never would be lonely, honey, you never would be blue

‘Cause my one aim in life would be to make love sweeter for you

Del himself wrote the next two songs, “Joe” and “Love Love Love”. The former is an up-tempo number about a performer who doesn’t mind bringing his fists into the equation, whereas the latter is a ballad that mixed tempos in telling its story.

“I’ll Be On My Way” is a dramatic ballad about the life of a wanderer. Written performed as a mid-tempo, the song features some nice fiddling by Jason Carter.

“You Could Be Me” is a ballad in which the narrator warns the listener that however bad the listener’s tale of woe, that the narrators are even worse. This song has received considerable airplay. Del has been singing bluesy and woeful ballads for decades and may be the ultimate master of the subgenre. This song was written by Tim Crouch, Edgar Sanders, Kenneth Mcafee, and Dennis Crouch.

The album closes with “I Fell In Love”. Those who listened to country radio will remember the song from the 1990 recording by Carlene Carter, a song that reached #3 on Billboard’s country chart. Needless to say, Del’s take does not remind you of Carlene Carter, but Del and his band infuse the song with a considerable dose of Del’s personality

Hey, I hit town without a clue

Minding my business like I always do

Just my luck I ran smack into you

And I never could’ve known it would be like this

You got the kind of charm that I can’t resist

I figure what’s the harm in a little bitty kiss or two

 

But I fell in love

(Whatcha want to do that for)

Oh I fell in love

(Whatcha want to do that for)

I fell in love

With the exception of guest pianist Josh Shilling on the Jerry Lee Lewis cover, this album is a self-contained album by Del and his band with Del playing the guitar and singing lead vocals, sons Ronnie (mandolin) and Rob (Banjo) adding harmony vocals and Jason Carter (fiddle) and Alan Bartram (upright bass) also adding harmony vocals. If you want to know how modern bluegrass should sound, this is a good place to start – a solid A

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Album Review: Linda Davis – ‘Linda Davis’

In 1992, Linda released her second album. Like the first it was produced by label boss Jimmy Bowen, with Linda getting a co-production credit, but it was uninspiringly self-titled. Where her earlier singles had failed to make much impact, the singles from this record were resoundingly ignored by country radio.

The reason why is clear when you listen to ‘There’s Something ‘Bout Loving You’, an upbeat but thoroughly forgettable pop-country song which now sounds very dated. It was written by hitmakers Chris Waters and Tom Shapiro, but was one of their poorest efforts, and a really bad choice for a single for an artist hoping to make her breakthrough. The follow-up, Dewayne Blackwell’s ‘He Isn’t My Affair Anymore’ is a much better song, an emotional ballad which Linda delivers with conviction, although it has a bit of a musical theater vibe.

The best song on the album is a cover of John Conlee’s 1982 hit, ‘Years After You’, which Linda manages to make her own with a lovely, emotionally invested vocal, although the production has not aged well, and the backing vocals are curiously old-fashioned for an album made in 1992. But the song itself is a great Thom Schuyler song about an enduring love which long survives a breakup:

I knew that it wouldn’t be easy
For my heart to find somebody new
But I never thought
It still would be broken in two
These years after you

They tell me time is a natural healer
It kinda smooths the pain away
But this hurtin’ within hasn’t yet given in
And it’s been over 2000 days
I still remember the taste of your kisses
And your eyes that were beautifully blue
I can still hear the sound of your voice
When you said we were through

There’ve been mornings when I couldn’t wake up
There’ve been evenings when I couldn’t sleep
My life will be fine for months at a time
Then I’ll break down and cry for a week
‘Cause when I told you I’d love you forever
I know you didn’t think it was true
But forever is nothing compared to some nights I’ve been through
These years after you

‘LA To The Moon’, another emotional ballad, is a fine song written by Susan Longacre and Lonnie Wilson about a country star and the hometown sweetheart left behind:

You were always different
Had a big dream in your heart
This old cowtown couldn’t hold you down
Once you caught your spark
I stood out on the runway
And watched you taxi past
I would’ve gone anywhere with you
But you never asked

You went from Beaumont to LA
And LA to the moon
An overnight success
You put a lot of years into
You tell me nothing’s different
I’m just a call away from you
But it feels more like the distance
from LA to the moon

‘Isn’t That What You Told Her’ is another excellent song, written by Karen Staley and Karen Harrison, with a barbed lyric addressed to a man with a questionable past record in love by his new love interest, who is understandably dubious. It is very well sung, but once more with dated backings.

‘Tonight She’s Climbing The Walls’ is a story song about a neglected wife ready to make a break, written by Craig Bickhardt and very well sung by Linda. ‘The Boy Back Home’, written by Gary Harrison and Tim Mensy, is another ballad, about nostalgia for a first love, and is quite nice in a more contemporary style.

Of the up-tempo material, ‘Just Enough Rope’ (later cut by Rick Trevino) is fun. ‘Love Happens’ and ‘Do I Do It To You To Too’ are both forgettable pieces of filler.

As a whole, this album is hampered by some of the production choices, but it did show Linda was a great singer given the right material, and some tracks are definitely worth downloading.

The commercial failure of this record was to lead to an unexpected second chapter in Linda’s career. Released by her label, she signed up as Reba McEntire’s backing vocalist, and the result would make country music history.

Grade: B

Album Review: Wade Hayes – ‘When The Wrong One Loves You Right’

After Wade’s cover of ‘Wichita Lineman’ failed to catch fire, the recording was swiftly removed from his upcoming album. The next single, which became the true lead single for 1998’s When The Wrong One Loves You Right, was much more successful, reaching #5. It is a great story song written by Mark D Sanders and Steve Diamond, about a young Oklahoma couple, told with subtlety. Led in with a wistful fiddle, the narrator is blindsided by his girlfriend’s pregnancy and her subsequent shame-filled choices:

No, she wasn’t showing yet
But she’d be by Christmas time
Up there like a fool
I took for granted it was mine
She never came out and told me I was wrong
But all of a sudden the light came on
The day that she left Tulsa
In a Chevy in a hurry in the pouring down rain
With the caution lights flashing in the passing lane
From a bridge I watched our dreams going down the drain

I guess she thought the truth would end up driving me away
Well, she was wrong
But I never had the chance to say

This is an outstanding song and performance. Unfortunately the title track did not repeat its predecessor’s chart performance, failing to make the top 40. It’s an up-tempo Leslie Satcher song which is actually pretty good.

The mournful undertones in Wade’s voice are perfect for the next single, ‘How Do You Sleep At Night’, written by Jim McBride and Jerry Salley, as he reproaches his ex:

Do you see me when you close your eyes?
How do you sleep at night?

Now your side of the bed’s as cold
As the lies that I believed
I’m at the point when I can’t even trust you in my dreams
Did the way you left me leave you feeling proud?

This time he was rewarded with a #13 peak for what proved to be his last hit single.

Wade’s last single for Columbia was the song originally intended as the album’s title track. ‘Tore Up from the Floor Up’ is an up-tempo honky tonker which is quite good but not very memorable.

Wade co-wrote two of the songs. ‘Are We Having Fun Yet’ (written with Chick Rains and Lonnie Wilson) is a good honky tonk number about a married man who discovers the grass isn’t greener on the party side of life. ‘One More Night With You’, written with Rains and producer Don Cook, is a decent mid-tempo tune about the dreariness of a working life contrasted with a happy love life.

‘Summer Was A Bummer’ is a charming song penned by Dean Dillon and Hank Cochran which Dillon had recorded himself a decade or so earlier and Ty Herndon also cut. It is a closely observed conversational number about a college girl’s coming home to her hometown (and her farm-based sweetheart) after a year away. Wade’s vocal is exquisite, and there is some lovely fiddle.

‘If I Wanted To Forget’ is a beautiful sad ballad written by Tom Shapiro and Chris Waters about not fully letting go of an old love. ‘Mine To Lose’, written by Paul Nelson, Larry Boone and Matt King, is addressed to the protagonist’s ex’s new love, regretting his own past failures, and is another fine song. Lewis Anderson and Jason Sellers wrote the delicate ballad ‘This Is My Heart Talking Now’, a last ditch plea to a loved one not to give up on their relationship.

This record was not as successful commercially as it deserved to be, but it is well worth rediscovering.

Grade: A

Album Review: Wade Hayes – ‘On A Good Night’

Released in June 1996, On A Good Night was Wade’s second album on Columbia. Produced by Don Cook, who also sings background on the album, the album climbed to #11 on the country albums chart and reached gold (500,000 sales) status. The album features a Who’s Who of Nashville session musician with Bruce Bouton on steel guitar, Mark Casstevens on acoustic guitar, Rob Hajacos on fiddle, Dennis Burnside on piano and organ, Brent Mason on electric guitar, Glenn Worf on bass guitar and Lonnie Wilson on drums. This is nothing if not a country album.

The album opens up with the title track, written by Larry Boone, Don Cook and Paul Nelson. The first single released from the album, it topped out at #2 on Billboard’s Country chart. The song is a rocking up-tempo romp:

On a good night I could hop in my truck
Round up my friends and with any kind of luck
We could end up howling at a harvest moon
On a good night I could put on my hat
Head down to the honky tonk and dance
But on a real good night I meet a women like you

Brown hair blue eyes once in a life time countrified kind of girl
Heart-breaking chance-taking wild little love making
Shaking up my world
Hey on a good night I can picture the day
All my dreams come true
But on a real good night I meet a women like you

Next up is a nice cover of the Willie Nelson- Hank Cochran collaboration, “Undo The Right”. The original was a top ten hit in 1968 by the ‘Country Caruso’ Johnny Bush. Bush’s recording is one of my top ten all-time favorite recordings. Hayes is no Johnny Bush, but he acquits himself well.

“The Room” was written by Chris Waters and Tom Shapiro. Chris is the brother of the late Holly Dunn and produced many of her records. The song is a slow ballad, rather introspective song of getting over the loss of love. It makes a nice change of pace but would not have made a good single.

Wade collaborated with Chick Rains and the redoubtable Bill Anderson on the up-tempo “It’s Over My Head” . The song was released as the third single from the album and topped out at #46. It’s a good song, well sung and I do not understand why it failed to do better:

That just goes to show how crazy love can be
Look at us now baby who would have thought it
I don’t know why you chose me

It’s over my head and I’m six feet tall
This beats anything I ever saw
Well I don’t see what you see in me at all
It’s over my head and I’m six feet tall

Marty Stuart and Chick Rains wrote “ I Still Do”. The song is a medium-slow ballad that I think could have made an effective single. This is not the same song that was a top twenty country hit for Bill Medley in 1984.

Don Cook and Chick Rains teamed up for “My Side of Town”, an up-tempo rocker that serves well to keep tempos appropriately varied on the album.

Wade Hayes and Chick Rains wrote “Where Do I Go To Start All Over”. Released as the second single from the album, the song stiffed, only reaching #42. It’s a nice ballad but and I’m not sure why it didn’t do better, especially since the previous five singles all went top ten or better.

I drove around last night, and tried with all my might
To leave the past behind, cause you stayed on my mind
So I stopped for a drink, I never stopped to think
That it wouldn’t work, It just made it worse
So I came on back home, I hadn’t changed a thing
And sat here all alone, missing you and wondering

Where do I go to start all over
From your memory
Where do I go to start all over
When in your arms is where I won’t be

“Our Time Is Coming was written by Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn and appeared on their Hard Workin’ Man album. The song is a dramatic ballad that Wade does masterfully – in fact it is my favorite song on the album, and I much prefer Wade’s recording to that of Brooks & Dunn.

Times are hard and the money’s tight
Day to day we fight that fight
Nothing new, it’s the same old grind
Uphill all the way

Boss man says forget the raise
Preacher says to keep the faith
Good things come to those who wait
Tomorrow’s another day

Our time is coming
When or where the good Lord only knows
Our time is coming
When this road we’re on will turn to a street of gold

Long as we keep love alive
Something tells me we’ll survive
It’s the little things that’ll get us by
And hold us together

I feel it when you hold me close
Baby we got more than most
Steady through the highs and lows
We’ll go on forever

The album closes with “Hurts Don’t It”, a ballad from the pens of Sam Hogin, Jim McBride & Greg Holland, and the mid-tempo semi-autobiographical “This Is the Life for Me” that Hayes penned with Chick Rains & Gary Nicholson. Dennis Burnside’s piano is well featured on this track.

I really liked this album and would give it an A-.

I am sure that Wade and producer Don Cook was greatly disappointed by the poor chart performance of the last two singles from the album. Accordingly they tried something different.

Unfortunately, that effort failed miserably. As I sit here writing this article I am listening to the single release that effectively killed Wade Hayes’ career at country radio. Intended as the initial single for the next album When The Wrong One Loves You Right, radio reaction to Wade’s cover of the old Glen Campbell hit “Wichita Lineman” single was so negative that the single was withdrawn (it peaked at #55) and ultimately did not appear on that album.

Album Review: Daryle Singletary – ‘Daryle Singletary’

Daryle’s debut album in 1995 was produced by his mentor Randy Travis with James Stroud and David Malloy.

Lead single ‘I’m Living Up To Her Low Expectations’ was not a great start, barely creeping into the top 40, but deserved better. Written by Bob McDill and Tommy Rocco, it’s a cheerful honky tonker about enjoying partying after his wife leaves.

It was followed by what was to prove to be Daryle’s biggest chart success, ‘I Let Her Lie’, a ballad about a cuckolded husband desperate to believe his wife, written by Tim Johnson. Daryle’s vocal is excellent, although the keyboards now sound a bit dated.

It was back to a more light hearted party vibe for ‘Too Much Fun’ which reached #4. Written by former Mercury artist Jeff Knight with Curtis Wright. The final single was one too many, peaking at #50. ‘Workin’ It Out’ (written by Tim Johnson and Brett James) is a beautifully sung ballad with a soothing melody, pleading for a relationship to last.

Another Tim Johnson song, the up-tempo ‘Ordinary Heroes’ compares depressing international headlines with people living day to day. Randy Travis provided one song he wrote with Ron Avis and Jerry Foster. ‘There’s A Cold Spell Moving In’ is an excellent measured ballad anticipating trouble in a relationship. My Heart’s Too Broke (To Pay Attention)’ is a lively western swing number written by Phil Barnhart, Kim Williams and Lonnie Wilson, and previously cut by Mark Chesnutt. Another nice song is the mid-tempo ‘A Love That Never Died’, written by Skip Ewing and Donny Kees.

The two best tracks appear at the end of the album, and both are covers, but of songs which had not been significant hits for others. Rhonda Vincent, then a Giant labelmate, lends her harmonies to the tenderly romantic ‘Would These Arms Be In Your Way’ (a minor single for Keith Whitley, but written by Vern Gosdin with Hank Cochran and Red Lane). This is really lovely. Even better is ‘What Am I Doing There’, which had been recorded a few years earlier by George Jones. It is a gorgeous ballad about being torn between a new love and feelings for an ex. Exquisite fiddle and steel add the final touches to what could potentially have been a career song.

At 24 Daryle had not yet quite matured vocally, and although the album was received well by critics, sales were relatively modest, perhaps because the singles did not truly represent Daryle’s gifts. However, it was a promising start, and I think it is worth catching up wth.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Holly Dunn – ‘Heart Full Of Love’

Holly’s 1990 follow up to The Blue Rose of Texas, which she produced with brother Chris Waters, was not quite as good as the latter, but is a fine effort nonetheless, with a lot of variety in tempo, style and subject matter, while Holly is in great voice.

Holly’s solo composition, ‘My Anniversary For Being A Fool’ is a lovely sad waltz as the protagonist remembers just how she threw away a true love.  Beautifully and delicately sung, with a prominent steel guitar behind her, it was the first single, but performed surprisingly,and undeservingly, poorly.  She regained traction with ‘You Really Had Me Going’, an up-tempo Dunn/Waters/Tom Shapiro song which became Holly’s first chart topper.  The rock n roll electric guitar solo from Brent Mason is unexpected, but doesn’t overwhelm the song.

The title track was the final single, but only just crept into the top 20.  A mid-tempo love song written by hitmaker Kostas, it is quite pleasant without being at all memorable.

‘The Light In The Window Went Out’ is an excellent song, in which the once-faithful protagonist gives up at last on her complacent ex who thinks he can pick up where he left off:

You thought I’d just keep hanging on

Love like a candle burns down to nothing

When it’s left untended too long

It was written by Holly and Chris with Ron Hellard.  The ironic ‘Temporary Loss Of Memory’ (penned by Holly and Chris with Lonnie Wilson) about a brief pause in a heartbreak is in a more contemporary vein, and isn’t bad.

The usual Waters/Dunn/Shapiro team exercised their social conscience with an emotional look at a homeless family for whom ‘No Place Is Home’.  Some may feel it tries a little too hard to make the hearer feel guilty, but it is clearly heartfelt and beautifully sung.

Waters and Shapiro teamed up with Charlie Black to write ‘My Old Love In New Mexico’, a wistful ballad about missing someone, with pretty Spanish guitar backing Holly.

There are many songs called ‘Home’ out there’; Karla Bonoff’s song of that name, which Holly recorded here, is one of the prettiest with a lovely melody and sweetly yearning vocal.  Just beautiful.

There is a sultry cover of the Marty Robbins classic ‘Don’t Worry’ with backing vocals from the Jordanaires recalling the original era.

The closing ‘Broken Heartland’ has a more contemporary vibe and lacks the emotion implied by the lyrics, but it is the only real misstep.

This was followed by a Greatest Hits album (Milestones), which brought a slowdown as her career suffered from the controversy over that album’s single ‘Maybe I Mean Yes’, which some thought inadvertently made light of the very serious date rape issue.

Cheap copies of Heart Full Of Love are easy to find and well worth acquiring.

Grade: A

Album Review: Holly Dunn – ‘The Blue Rose of Texas’

HollyDunnTheBlueRoseofTexasShortly after the dissolution of MTM Records, Holly Dunn landed a contract with Warner Bros. and her career enjoyed a resurgence from both an artistic and commercial standpoint. Her Warner Bros. debut, 1989’s The Blue Rose of Texas was produced by Holly and her brother and songwriting partner Chris Waters, and is by far the finest album of her career. Her first single for her new label was “Are You Ever Gonna Love Me” which she wrote with Waters and Tom Shapiro. The uptempo number, which finds her frustrated by an overly cautious new love interest, became her first Billboard #1 hit in May 1989. It’s one of the few concessions to radio in what is mostly a very traditional album. Another uptempo number “There Goes My Heart Again”, which features background vocals by Joe Diffie who co-wrote the tune with Lonnie Wilson and Wayne Perry, was the album’s second single, which peaked at #4.

Suprisingly, Warner Bros. opted not to release any further singles from the album, despite a warm reception from radio. One track, “No One Takes The Train Anymore”, a ballad beautifully written by Chris Waters and exquisitely performed by Holly, was included on her 1991 greatest hits package Milestones. It became a single in 1991 in the aftermath of the “Maybe I Mean Yes” debacle, but overshadowed by controversy of its predecessor, it became the first Holly Dunn single not to chart. Despite its lack of commercial success, it has always been one of my favorites. It finds Dunn pondering an impending breakup and lamenting the fact that the fast pace of modern life, which includes traveling by car or plane rather than sea or rail, leaves little opportunity for the party that is leaving to change his mind.

The album’s remaining songs are exceptionally strong, even though none of them were released as singles. Approximately half of them were written by one or more members of the Dunn/Waters/Shapiro team with the rest being supplied by some well known outside songwriters. It’s hard to pick favorites, but if pressed I would narrow the list down to three: the Dunn/Waters/Shapiro-written title track, which includes some excellent electric guitar work, the Don Schlitz and Paul Overstreet song “There’s No Heart So Strong”, and “Most of All, Why”, which contains some beautiful harmonizing by its writer Dolly Parton. Originally included on Dolly’s 1975 album The Seeker/We Used To, the regret-filled ballad asks the poignant questions:

How did we get here,
Where did it start,
When did we walk out of each other’s hearts?
Where did we lose it,
How did love die,
When, where and how, but most of all, why?

I like all of Dunn’s albums, but this is the one that I play all the way through most often. It’s one of the ten essential albums I’d want with me if I were stranded on a desert island and I’ve never quite understood why it didn’t sell better than it did. I don’t think it is still in print, but copies are still available on Amazon. Pick one up while you still can.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Shenandoah – ‘In the Vicinity of the Heart’

sheanndoahBy 1994 Shenandoah was once again looking for a new label. This time they landed at Liberty. At the time they were nearing completion on a new album which RCA allowedthe band to take with them. At Liberty they recorded one new track with guest vocalist Alison Krauss. “Somewhere in the Vicinity of the Heart” was a much bigger hit than its peak chart position (#7) suggested. It won the CMA’s Vocal Event of the Year in 1995 and also won a Grammy for Best Country Collaboration with Vocals. In addition, it provided Krauss with her first Top 40 hit and her first major exposure outside of the bluegrass world.

Like its predecessor Under the Kudzu, In the Vicinity of the Heart was produced by Don Cook. On the strength of its title track, it became Shenandoah’s fastest-selling album, though it ultimately failed to earn any certifications. The second single “Darned If I Don’t (Danged If I Do)” is an upbeat, radio friendly tune that was penned by Ronnie Dunn and Dean Dillon. Peaking at #4, it gave Shenandoah their last Top 10 hit.

A few of the album’s tracks have been recorded by other artists. Dennis Linde’s “Heaven Bound (I’m Ready)” had previously been recorded by The Oak Ridge Boys, and “I Wouldn’t Know”, which was co-written by Shenandoah member Mike McGuire was later covered by Reba McEntire. Though not a religious song, “Heaven Bound (I’m Ready) has got a gospel flavor that is well suited to the Oaks’ four part harmonies, and ultimately the Shenandoah version, which reached #24, cannot compete. I prefer Shenandoah’s version of “I Wouldn’t Know” to Reba’s more crossover-oriented take. “She Could Care Less” was also later covered by Joe Nichols on his debut album, but neither version of this somewhat pedestrian number is particularly memorable. Ditto for “Every Fire” which was later covered by Jason Sellers and Restless Heart.

“Always Have, Always Will” was the album’s fourth and final single. By this time Shendanoah’s chart decline was apparent; the song stalled at #40 and all of their subsequent releases charted even lower. I would have liked for “Cabin Fever”, a Marty Raybon co-write with Bud McGuire and Lonnie Wilson, to have been released as a single. The upbeat number allows the band to showcase their harmonies and it is reminiscent of their earlier work on Columbia.

In the Vicinity of the Heart was Shenandoah’s only album for Liberty Records. By the time of the band’s next release Now and Then, the label had reverted back to its former name Capitol Nashville. Now and Then contained some new songs and some re-recordings of some of their Columbia hits. A Christmas album was released by Capitol in 1996, shortly before Marty Raybon’s departure from the band.

At the time of its release, In the Vicinity of the Heart was criticized in some quarters for playing it too safe, and while it’s true that it doesn’t contain any artistic stretches or surprises, it is a solid piece of work and a grim reminder how even an album that was only considered average 20 years ago knocks the socks off most the today’s top sellers. It isn’t available for download, but cheap used copies are easy to find. Fans of 90s country may want to pick up a copy.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Joe Diffie, Sammy Kershaw and Aaron Tippin – ‘All In The Same Boat’

all in the same boatAaron Tippin, our current Spotlight Artist and two fellow 90s stars we have highlighted in the past, Joe Diffie and Sammy Kershaw, have been touring together recently, and this inspired them to team up for a new album together.

It isn’t really a trio record, with most tracks featuring a single lead singer, with the others relegated to backing vocals. Each man also produces his own tracks, with Diffie assisted by regular collaborator, drummer Lonnie Wilson, and Kershaw taking over production duties on the three tracks on which vocals are shared. The album features a fairly eclectic mix of revivals of each of the guys’ hits, new songs, and a couple of unexpected covers.

The three share the lead vocals only occasionally, with the tracks which bookend the setsetting a buddyish mood. The first is the title track, penned by Wynn Varble, Jamey Johnson and Don Poythress. The humorous song, about a group of friends escaping their wives for a fishing trip, is being promoted as a single, complete with comedic video which nicely undercuts the masculine posturing, and is one of those clips which does add something to the song it illustrates. The closing track is a tribute to ‘Old Friends’ through thick and thin, written by Ben Hayslip and Jim Beavers. Both are decent songs if not particularly memorable ones, and they work well presenting the men as friends. The three also collaborate on a new Sammy Kershaw composition, ‘The Route That I Took’. This is a serious song about experiences and life’s choices.

Of the revivals, Aaron picks ‘Kiss This’ (one of his less subtle numbers but tackled here with undeniable enthusiasm which makes it palatable) and the inspirational tribute to his dad, ‘He Believed’. Sammy’s ‘She Don’t Know She’s Beautiful’ is pleasant enough but seems redundant. Honestly, though, all three of the revivals could have been omitted as none adds anything to the original.

More adventurously, Joe Diffie chooses to cover country rocker Neil Young’s ‘Heart Of Gold’; the arrangement is nice with a prominent harmonica but Joe’s voice sounds a bit rough. Aaron Tippin is not really suited vocally to a standard like ‘The Way You look Tonight’, but it was an interesting idea if ultimately unsuccessful, and it’s nice to see artists taking the occasional risk.

Sammy Kershaw sings ‘On And On’ well but it’s rather a boring song. His best vocal of the album comes on the sincere ‘I Love To Work’, avowing his dedication to family and job, which he wrote with Bradley Gaskin and Billy Lawson.

Joe Diffie delivers a great vocal on his own ‘I’m Hangin’ On’, which is a pretty good song about a relationship falling apart, which he wrote with Steve Pippin. I also enjoyed his vocal on the playful up-tempo ‘Misery Loves Country’, written by Josh Kerr, David Fraiser and Edward Hill. These two cuts, and the three trio songs, are the pick of the bunch, and the most individually download-worthy, followed by ‘I Love To Work’.

This is not a bad album by any means, and there are quite a few tracks I like, but it’s not going to rank high on the discographies of any of its participants or to be an essential purchase for most fans.

Grade: B-

Album Review: Collin Raye – ‘All I Can Be’

all i can beCollin Raye made his solo debut in 1991 on Epic Records. His first album for the label was produced by Jerry Fuller and John Hobbs, and their sympathetic work grounded Collin’s silvery tenor in neotraditional country backings slathered in fiddle as sweet as his voice. Collin keeps the vocals understated and subtle. The team also found some excellent songs well suited to Collin’s voice, and the result was delightful.

The enchanting title track, ‘All I Can Be (Is A Sweet Memory)’ is a sweetly sung older Harlan Howard tune (once recorded by Conway Twitty) whose married protagonist parts from his younger lover for her own good. As Colin’s debut single, it was a modest start for him, just creeping into the top 30, but it is an extremely good song, with Vince Gill providing a close harmony vocal.

However, the followup ‘Love, Me’ was a career song for the newcomer, rocketing to the top of the charts and helping the album to platinum status. It is still probably Collin’s best remembered song. Written by Skip Ewing and Max T Barnes, it is a sweet story of the lifelong (and beyond) love of the protagonist’s grandparents. It escapes schmaltz thanks to Collin’s beautiful and palpably sincere vocal and the tastefully understated arrangement.

The third and last single, Every Second’ is a sunny mid-tempo love song with a traditional feel, and peaked at #2.

My personal favorite track is the plaintive lost-love ballad ‘It Could’ve Been So Good’, which Chris Waters wrote with Lonnie Wilson. Collin reflects on the opportunity he and his ex lost of potential lifelong happiness.

Almost as good, the wistful ballad ‘Faithful Old Flame’, penned by Lonnie Wilson and Brent Mason, has a lovely melody and allows Raye’s voice to soar as he dwells on an old love whose memory can’t be shaken off.

The charming ‘Scuse Moi My Heart’ scatters in some random French phrases as country boy Collin tries to woo a sophisticated country club lady in New Orleans. It’s one of the most engaging songs of its kind.

‘Sadly Ever After’ written by Mark Collie and Bruce Burch, uses the fairy tale metaphor for a failed relationship; there is a surprisingly upbeat feel thanks to the pacy tempo and full-blooded vocal. There is a rare co-writing credit for Collin with ‘Blue Magic’, written with his producers. This is an attractive if unexceptional mid-tempo love song with some lovely Rob Hajacos fiddle.

Collin’s strength is as a balad singer, but he takes it uptempo with ‘Any Old Stretch Of Blacktop’, expressing the joy of coming home to a loved one. The album also closes with the bright up-tempo warning to a neglectful husband, ‘If I Were You (And She Was Mine)’.

Everything about this album is a delight. Copies can be found cheaply, and this is an essential purchase for fans of 90s country.

Grade: A

Album Review: Joe Diffie – ‘Tougher Than Nails’

After the loss of his Monument deal, Joe signed to the indie label Broken Bow, for whom he released one album in 2004. He shared production duties with Lonnie Wilson and Buddy Cannon.

He was still a viable hit maker on country radio, even on a minor label, and the title track (a religious song) reached the top 20. Written by Phil O’Donnell, Max T Barnes and Kendell Marvel, it links a modern story (a little boy beaten up by bullies) to the example of Jesus. Perhaps not the most innovative of lyrics, but it is well done, as the father advises his boy against revenge:

Let me tell you a little story about the toughest man I know
Hit him and he just turned the other cheek
But don’t think for a minute he was weak
Cause in the end he showed them he was anything but frail
They hammered him to a cross
But He was tougher than nails

Later on the album, Joe takes the opposite message from a rather different role model in the tongue-in-cheek ‘What Would Waylon Do’, featuring a guest vocal from George Jones (doing his best Waylon impersonation). It was written by Leslie Satcher and Wynn Varble about the tribulations of being a touring musician, and was apparently initially inspired by an incident at a real Waylon Jennings concert when the promoter declined to pay him:

There’s blue cheese in the greenroom
What are we supposed to eat?
And the opening act’s a polka band
And they can’t keep a beat

Now the sheriff’s got the drug dogs
Tearing up our bus
We’re just hillbilly singers
I think he’s profiling us
And now he wants an autograph
And a free t-shirt or two
Well, what would Waylon do?

The second single, ‘If I Could Only Bring You Back’ (selected by the label owner and written by Frank Myers and Chip Davis) failed to make much of an impact. That was radio’s loss, as it was a beautifully interpreted, if rather sad and downbeat tale of bereavement, with understated string section. The protagonist declares he would be willing to give up all his worldly goods, if only the impossible could happen, but:

There’s no words I can say
Not a prayer I can pray
No road that you can take
Back to my arms

I would even take your place
If I could only bring you back

The December-set ‘This Time Last Year’, written by Giles Godard, Bobby Tomberlin and Robbie Wittkowski, has a similar feeling of loss. ‘Good News, Bad News’, written by Danny Wells and Chris Wallin, is even better, a sensitively delivered ballad about struggling with getting over lost love with nothing to look forward to but more of the same:

I’d unfeel the way I feel
If it would make you ungone
Gotta stop livin’ in the past
Look forward and not back
This getting used to go goin’ on without you
Is gonna take some time
The good news is tomorrow’s another day
But the bad news is tomorrow’s another day

Joe wrote five of the twelve tracks, including a rare solo composition, ‘Movin’ Train’, a song about an unsettling relationship which I can imagine bluegrass-style.

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Album Review: Joe Diffie – ‘In Another World’

In Another World would be the final album Joe Diffie recorded for Epic, his label home all through his heady hit-making days of the 1990s.   It was again produced by Music Row veteran Don Cook and Lonnie Wilson.  The pair take a mostly neo-traditional approach to the music, and allow the lyrics and Joe’s vocal performances to shine through and be the central instrument on the album.  As a whole, this is one of Joe’s most solid efforts – almost all of these songs are good ones – but it does lack any real knockout moments.  In Another World didn’t restore Joe Diffie to a gold-selling record maker, though the title track did find a lot of favor with country radio.

‘In Another World’, the very pop-leaning title track, revisits a similar theme from Joe’s own ‘A Night To Remember’ with a man visualizing a love gone by.  The chorus sweeps you away, but the overall wall of production, and the use of echo and autotune make the song itself sound more than a bit out of place among the rest of Joe’s hits.

Jo Dee Messina took ‘My Give A Damn’s Busted’ to the top of the charts in 2005, but the Tony Martin, Tom Shapiro, and Joe Diffie co-write makes its first appearance to the country audience here.  It’s no surprise not many remembered it – considering it’s status as an album cut on an obscure Joe Diffie album – and given that this version just sounds so tame, and dare I say, phoned in, while memories of Messina’s punchy performance are still fresh in my ears.  Where Messina giggles and sashays her way through the lyric, Diffie appears to be aiming for a more deadpan approach – one that doesn’t serve the song well.

‘If I Lost Her’ finds a man in a bar after a fight with his wife, and tells of the advances of another, albeit adequate, woman on the make.  The attention from this new lady only sends his mind to the one at home, and rekindles the fire between them.  It takes a somewhat plodding pace, but is a good song, if not a recurrent favorite.

From the minds of John Scott Sherrill and Shawn Camp is ‘Hollow Deep As Mine’, a modern-day country/blues hybrid story of a Kentucky man, bemoaning the cold and isolated mountain backroads he calls home.  ‘Hollow’ also features the production style, and mid-tempo pace, that I’ve always preferred in Joe Diffie’s music, with plenty of steel and fiddle set to a driving melody.  An added bonus this time are that the lyrics are smart, vivid, and to the point.

Following the mid-tempo neo-traditional sound is the album’s second single, ‘This Pretender’.  The oft-told tale of someone wearing a smile to mask their heartache and the half a dozen cliché’ images and emotions in lines like ‘Got a smile painted on my face, got my heartache locked away prayin’ you won’t see’ helped it to stall at #49 on the country singles chart.

A couple of novelty songs pop up this time out, though both are clever and without an overabundance they begin to actually sound novel again.  The aforementioned ‘My Give A Damn’s Busted’ precedes ‘Stoned On Her Love’ as the only up-tempo ditties.  ‘Stoned’ features Sawyer Brown-style harmonies and similar guitar work that would get Mark Miller popping and bouncing.  ‘Live To Love Another Day’ falls close to the novelty song category, but a determined vocal from Joe on this Brooks & Dunn-inspired country rocker, with the guitars cranked up high in the mix, keep it serious enough.  Likewise, ‘What A Way To Go’ wryly tells of a man giving in to a woman he knows will break his heart, maybe even kill him, but dying in her arms, hey, ‘what a way to go’.

‘The Grandpa That I Know’ was written by Tim Mensy and Shawn Camp and was first recorded by Mensy for his own Giant Records release, and later by Patty Loveless on her sublime On Your Way Home album.  Diffie’s abilities as an interpreter of a sentimental country lyric are at their apex here, accompanied by a simple arrangement that’s perfectly suited for his memories of the earthy farmer in overalls that he calls Grandpa, while he tries not to commit to memory the image of him in a striped suit, going to meet his maker.  The mournful fiddle solo at the end is a fitting touch, and closes an overall solid collection of country music.

Grade: B

In Another World is still widely available, at amazon and everywhere else.

Album Review: Joe Diffie – ‘A Night To Remember’

Joe had followed up the disappointing sales of Twice Upon A Time with a Greatest Hits set, and in 1999 released what was to be his final effort for Epic. Produced by Don Cook with Joe’s old friend and collaborator Lonnie Wilson, it was a real return to form artistically, with not a novelty song in sight, and although it did not do as well commercially as it deserved to, he sustained his profile on radio.

The title track, written by Max D. Barnes and T. W. Hale, is a tenderly sung ballad focussing on a protagonist surrounding wallowing in tangible memories of a past relationship. It is a really good song, and was deservedly a sizeable hit, peaking at #6 on the country chart and even getting some crossover radio play. ‘The Quittin’ Kind’ is a solid enough mid-tempo love song with a slightly cluttered production. It was a poor choice as the follow-up single as it is perhaps the least interesting song here, and understandably it failed to crack the top 20. The efficiently poppy mid-tempo ‘It’s Always Somethin’’ (written by Aimee Mayo and Marv Green) isn’t much to my taste, but it appealed to country radio and gave Joe another top 5 hit.

Four of Joe’s own songs are included, three of them co-writes with Lonnie, including a couple of the highlights. One of these is ‘I’m The Only Thing I’ll Hold Against You’, written some years earlier by the pair with Kim Williams. It was originally recorded by Conway Twitty on his final album in 1993, but Joe’s version is even better. His voice really soars in the chorus as he swears unconditional love and forgiveness as he reconciles with his wife:

Sometimes things go wrong between a woman and a man
I know we’ll make it work
All we need’s a second chance
I’m the only thing I’ll hold against you

Let my lovin’ arms show you the truth
There’ll be no “I told you so”s
No matter how much heartache we go through
I love you (I’ll always love you)
I’m the only thing I’ll hold against you

Joe and Lonnie were joined by Zack Turner to express the opposing point of view in the anguished ‘Are We Even Yet’, another dramatic and beautifully sung ballad. This bitter-tinged look at a couple destroying themselves by keeping score of hurt is my overall favorite track:

My words hurt and cause you pain
Teardrops fall like pouring rain
You cry and cry
Love dies and dies some more
Revenge is sweet when you don’t talk
I’m afraid you’re gonna walk
What will it take to take back the things we’ve said?
Are we even yet?

Are we even yet?
Do we even know
If we’re holdin’ on or lettin’ go?
Nobody wins when we can’t forgive and forget
Are we even yet?

It is a shame this remained buried as an album track on one of Joe’s lower selling albums.

This trio also wrote the bittersweet midtempo ‘You Can’t Go Home’ as Joe returns to a former old marital home:

I came looking for a feeling but the feeling’s gone
You can go back but you can’t go home

Zack and Lonnie wrote the downbeat ‘Better Off Gone’ together, about a man struggling to come to terms with his decision to leave; it’s another fine song with an impassioned vocal as Joe admits he isn’t really happier sitting alone in the dark.

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Album Review: Joe Diffie – ‘Twice Upon A Time’

Though he did release a handful of great ballads to country radio, some of which became bonafide hits, Joe Diffie was always more successful with fun, up-tempo numbers.  By the latter half of the 90s – nearly a decade into his hit-making career – country radio had begun to cool toward even Joe’s brand of humor meets neotraditional sound.  Like the last 2 singles from Life’s So Funny, the single releases from Twice Upon A Time continued Joe’s downward spiral from the limelight at country radio. There are no top-ten hits here, and the highest showing comes from the insidious ‘This Is Your Brain’s #25 peak.  Without much support from radio, it was also Joe Diffie’s first album since his debut not to be certified by the RIAA.  Its lack of radio and retail success notwithstanding, Twice Upon A Time doesn’t deserve its status as the end-note for Joe’s short-lived glory days, and is a step above some of his other, more commercially successful albums.

‘This Is Your Brain’ is a fast-paced, partly spoken, mostly amped up romp narrated by, you guessed it, your brain. Taking the hook from the pop-culture favorite drug resistance ads ‘this is your brain on drugs’ that featured an egg sizzling in a frying pan, among other scenarios, the brain is cautioning this guy about his lack of resistance for the opposite sex. Even with repeated warnings from the body’s control center, he still falls in love and loses more than a few I.Q. points every time. The Kelly Garrett and Craig Wiseman-penned tune has its clever moments, but it’s earworm melody will cool you on those before long.

My favorite on the album, and another missed single opportunity for Joe, was the album’s superb title track. Songwriters Skip Ewing and Kim Williams paint a picture of a couple at a crossroads. Tough times have clouded both their minds with doubt, and the idea of leaving has occurred to both of them, ‘The choice is ours, the pen’s still in our hands/We can right the wrong, or we can write the end‘, Joe sings with heartbroken conviction.

‘The Promised Land’ finds a man nostalgic for the place where his roots began. The strong religious undertones between the real-life memories should have played nicely on late 90s country radio (think: ‘Holes In The Floor of Heaven’), but as the final single it barely registered at #61 on the charts.

‘Show Me A Woman’ chugs along at breakneck speed, but doesn’t offer much more than the opportunity to jam with the band. Likewise, ‘Houston, We Have a Problem’ features guitar solos that would make Brad Paisley envious, but is basically the product of a buzz-word mentality, taking the catch-phrase from the Apollo movies and attempting to build a song around it.

Joe contributed only one of his own songs this time out – a co-write with frequent collaborator Lonnie Wilson, ‘I Got A Feelin’, which was was first recorded by Tracy Lawrence  – though he did draw from the usual suspects found on his previous albums.  In addition to the title track, Craig Wiseman contributes the Bob DiPiero collaboration ‘Zero’, a much better song in the novelty format, wherein a man is counting down reasons, rights, and wrongs that lead to him being single, all to an infectious melody.  Dennis Linde’s ‘Call Me John Doe’ is a honky-tonking tale of a man who did his woman wrong one too many times.  Now he’s shivering in her freezer. Better than just album filler, any of these would were worth sending out to radio, some more than what was shipped to radio.

‘One More Breath’, written by Leslie Satcher, closes the set on a high note.  The mostly-piano lead ballad is a tender expression of gratitude coupled with a promise of never-ending devotion.  Perhaps a bit saccharine at times, it’s a well-written song that Joe delivers beautifully.  Though Joe continued to fill his albums with more schtick than substantial songs, Twice Upon A Time is an album that is more balanced between the two sides of Joe Diffie – the balladeer and the novelty-song singer – but it also offers other glimpses to a more contemporary artist with tracks like ‘Zero’ and the album closer.

Grade: B-

Twice Upon A Time is still widely available, on CD and digitally from amazon.

Album Review: Joe Diffie – ‘Honky Tonk Attitude’

April 1993 saw the release of Joe Diffie’s third studio album on the Epic label. Honky Tonk Attitude would continue Joe’s ascent to country stardom as it produced 4 hit singles, the first 3 of them hitting the top 5.  Likewise, the album itself was Joe’s first to place inside the top 10 on the country albums chart, and would also be his first to earn platinum certification.  As Honky Tonk Attitude continued the success Diffie had earned with his prior albums, it found the singer shifting gears a bit, away from the ballad-heavy albums that came before it. Still, Joe ably wraps his warm and flexible baritone around a couple of decidedly traditional country numbers and a handful of up-tempo ditties ranging from clever to silly.

The lead single and title track to the album is one of several Joe Diffie singles that sort of gel together into one giant ball of loud in my head.  Other artists are guilty of this sort of overindulgence into up-tempo with wailing guitars and tongue-between-teeth lyrics.  Brooks & Dunn’s massive success with ‘Boot Scootin’ Boogie’ certainly helped fuel this wildfire of line dance-inspired country hits.  This tune about getting on your ‘Friday night, get right honky tonk attitude‘ peaked at #5 just about the time of the album’s release.

Proving that when given a better lyric, he could inject just the right amount of humor when the song calls for it, Joe’s performance on the clever ‘Prop Me Up Beside The Jukebox (If I Die)’ finds the singer showing maybe why he recorded so many songs of this nature: he’s actually really good at them. This time he fared just a bit better with country radio, and rose to #3 with this single.  Still not breaking out of the novelty mode already set by this album, the next single tells the story of Billy Bob (repeatedly) painting his and Charlene’s name on the water tower to profess his love.  And to prove his devotion – and also make sure everybody could see it – he uses the bright green color of John Deere tractors.  It’s a rather endearing story song, and writer Dennis Linde draws on very specific images to give a very clear picture in your head as the song plays.  ‘John Deere Green’ would be the third top 5 single from Honky Tonk Attitude.

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Album Review: Joe Diffie – ‘Regular Joe’

Joe Diffie’s sophomore release continued to build upon the winning formula of 1990’s A Thousand Winding Roads and went on to become his first gold album in 1992. While listening to it for the first time in quite a while, caused me to experience a severe case of 90s nostalgia. The first notes of the opening track, “Startin’ Over Blues”, a single that peaked just outside the Top 40 caused me to stop what I was doing and listen in amazement at the excellent and non-pretentious picking and singing, something that I routinely took for granted in the 90s but sorely miss from most contemporary releases. Like its predecessor, Regular Joe was produced by Bob Montgomery and Johnny Slate. Diffie had a hand in writing four of the album’s ten songs.

In addition to the aforementioned “Startin’ Over Blues”, Regular Joe spawned three other singles, including two top five hits — “Is It Cold In Here” and “Ships That Don’t Come In” — which I consider to be the two finest performances of Diffie’s career. The former examines a dying relationship, while the latter is a conversation between two men in a bar — a younger one who is discontented with his life, and an older, wiser one who points out that there are plenty of others who are far worse off. It’s not exactly the type of song that would find a home on country radio today, but it’s the kind that the format so desperately needs. It’s difficult to decide which song I like better, though if forced to choose, I’d give a slight edge to “Is It Cold In Here”. Diffie shares songwriting credits on both of these masterpieces. Either one could have and should have been considered his career record; it’s a shame that he is better remembered today for his uptempo semi-novelty tunes. Following these two consecutive top five successes, Joe faltered a bit on his next single, the upbeat “Next Thing Smokin'” — another of his co-writes, which only made it to #16 on the charts. “Startin’ Over Blues” fared even worse, stalling at #41, despite being one of the more radio-friendly tracks on the album. Possibly it didn’t receive enough promotional support from the label. In the early 90s, artists tended to release albums more frequently than they do today. The lead single from Diffie’s next project was released slightly more than a year after Regular Joe, which may have been to the detriment of “Startin’ Over Blues”, his worst performance on the singles charts up to that time.

In addition the album contains several solid tracks that were not chosen for single release. Diffie turns in a fine vocal performance, reminiscent of George Jones on “Ain’t That Bad Enough”, which he wrote with Ron Moore and longtime collaborator Lonnie Wilson. The closing track “Goodnight Sweetheart” could have been subtitled “The One That Got Away”; it went on to become a Top 10 hit for the now-forgotten David Kersh in 1996. It’s surprising that Epic didn’t send this one to radio, particularly in light of the chart success of the album’s other ballads.

Despite all of these fine performances, Regular Joe is not without its flaws. It is marred by two tracks in particular — “Just A Regular Joe” and “Back To Back Heartaches” which both suffer from a now dated-sounding line-dance style beat and production which make them sound out-of-place with the rest of the album. However, both of these missteps are forgivable, detracting only slightly from the enjoyment experienced from listening to this fine album.

Grade: A

Regular Joe is still in print and available from vendors such as Amazon and iTunes.

Album Review: Joe Diffie – ‘A Thousand Winding Roads’

Joe’s debut solo album was released on Epic in 1990, and immediately propelled him to stardom; overnight success (at the age of 32) which was thoroughly deserved, because this is an excellent album, and a fine exemplar of the neotraditional movement which all too briefly dominated the genre. It was produced by Bob Montgomery (then also working with Vern Gosdin) and Johnny Slate. They provided a sympathetic backing which showcased Joe’s vocal prowess.

The lead single ‘Home’ (written by Andy Spooner and Fred Lehner), which has the disillusioned protagonist looking wistfully back to his childhood, took Joe right to the top of the charts. It set records as the first ever debut single to hit #1 on all three of the major charts then in existence (Billboard, Radio & Records, and Gavin). The nostalgia feeds on the protagonist’s disillusionment about the dreams he has been pursuing:

The rainbows I’ve been chasing keep on fading before I find my pot of gold…

Now the miles I put behind me ain’t as hard as the miles that lay ahead
And it’s way too late to listen to the words of wisdom that my daddy said
The straight and narrow path he showed me turned into a thousand winding roads
My footsteps carry me away, but in my mind I’m always going home

The pained ballad ‘If You Want Me To’ was almost as successful, reaching #2 in 1991, and is my personal favorite of the four singles from this project. One of Joe’s own songs (written with Larry Williams), it was the first showcase of the apparently effortless slide between registers which is Joe’s most remarkable gift as a vocalist, as the narrator gently tells his beloved he is prepared to do whatever she wants from him, even if:

If it takes good-bye to make you happy
Then I’ll just walk away if you want me to

‘If The Devil Danced (In Empty Pockets)’, written by Kim Williams (Larry’s brother) and Ken Spooner, took Joe back to #1, with its witty western swing twist on being broke and too easily swayed by a persuasive car salesman. The optimistic final single was written by Joe with his friend and regular co-writer Lonnie Wilson (who also plays drums and sings backing vocals on the album), about finding a ‘New Way (To Light Up An Old Flame)’. The only really happy song on the album, it was another #2 Billboard hit, and cemented Joe’s status as one of the brightest new stars of the early 90s.

Heartbreak also comes uptempo with the drinking-to-forget-the-heartbreak song ‘I Ain’t Leavin’ Til She’s Gone’ (written by Joe with Wayne Perry and Lonnie Wilson). Joe wails,

One drink’s too many
Ten ain’t enough
Lord, but she’s still here
So I’ll have one more

More western swing is on offer with the similarly themed ‘Liquid Heartache’, another of Joe’s songs, this one written with the veteran Red Lane, with a great groove which really lets the musicians stretch out.

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Spotlight Artist: Joe Diffie

Joe Diffie hit the country music scene just months after the fabled Class of ’89, and like several of the 1989 alumni, Joe’s first releases to country radio shot right up the charts, and he was on his way to a decade-long run of success that includes 16 top 10 hits, five of which went to #1. In the meantime, Joe Diffie racked up 4 consecutive gold-selling albums, with two of these going all the way to platinum for shipments of over 1,000,000 copies. Best known today for his sometimes clever, always fun, novelty songs, mostly about the joys and simplicity of rural life, Diffie was also an able balladeer, and his best performances come from not the lightweight charm of songs like ‘Bigger Than The Beatles’ or ‘Prop Me Up Beside The Jukebox’, but from his neo-traditional offerings like ‘Home’ and ‘A Night To Remember’.

Joseph Logan Diffie was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma on December 28, 1958, but his family would make several moves across country before settling back in Oklahoma for Joe’s high school years. His father was a guitar and banjo player and his mother a singer. The family also performed together regularly, and as part of Joe’s aunt’s country band. It was in this band that Joe made his first public performance, at age 4. Joe would go on to college to pursue a degree in medicine, but dropped out after marrying for the first of three times in 1977. While working several blue-collar jobs on the side, Joe continued to pursue his music career, performing in the gospel group, Higher Purpose. Later, he would front a bluegrass band billed as Special Edition.

In 1986, following a divorce from his first wife, and and after some initial songwriting success, Joe made the move to Nashville to follow his musical ambitions full-time. The legendary Hank Thompson had recorded Joe’s ‘Love On The Rocks’. In Music City, he found work as an in-demand demo singer and continued to hone his songwriting skills. In 1989, Holly Dunn had a top 5 hit with ‘There Goes My Heart Again’, a song Joe had co-written with Lonnie Wilson and Wayne Perry. A recording contract with Epic soon followed, and Joe issued his debut for the label in September of 1990. The album’s first single, the unforgettable ‘Home’, quickly shot to the top of the country singles chart, and the album produced another chart-topper and 2 #2 hits as well.

Following the success of his debut album, Joe went on to release a string of highly successful albums for the Epic label between 1990 -99. His years at Epic would ultimately prove to be his most commercially successful. Shortly after his exit from Epic, Joe moved over to Monument Records and his only album for the label, In Another World, earned him another top 10 hit in the title track. Subsequently, another label change to the independent Broken Bow netted him another top 20 hit in 2004.

Recently, Joe has signed to Rounder Records, and the label first issued a live album, recorded at the famous Billy Bob’s in Fort Wort, Texas, on the singer in 2008. Last year saw The Ultimate Collection, which consists of re-recordings of his Epic hits for the Rounder imprint.  Joe now plans to release his first new music in 6 years.  Also from Rounder, Homecoming: A Bluegrass Collection arrives August 24.

Joe Diffie, to me, was always a bit of a double-personality artist. There was the goofy, fun-loving moustached and mulleted singer of up-tempo ditties. And then, even with the same look, Joe could be just as convincing while nailing you to the wall with a great country lyric, as he does with ‘Is It Cold In Here’. But the interesting aspect about Joe was that he seemed to have a firm grasp on both personas and maneuvered them both very well. This month, we’ll be taking a look back through the catalog of Joe Diffie, and offering our own take on both sides of Joe Diffie’s musical personality.  We hope you enjoy reading our thoughts, and that we re-discover some of our old favorites, and maybe introduce some of you to some great music along the way.